The Vertigo of Eros is what Matta called an “inscape,” one of a series of imaginary landscapes he conceived of as projections of his psyche. In 1939, to escape the war in Europe, Matta emigrated from Paris to New York, where he stayed until 1948. His use of spontaneous, unplanned “automatic” drawing and his interest in mysticism, evident in paintings such as this, had a tremendous influence on many New York–based artists.
Together with other Surrealists in exile, he quickly made acquaintance with painters, including Jackson Pollock. “We spoke of automatism,” Matta recalled. “The New Yorkers became aware of these things through contact with us, although, as in a Chaplin movie, we had arrived utterly lost.”
Gallery label from 2011.
Matta's paintings do not describe the world we see when we open our eyes. Nor are these the dream or fantasy scenes of his fellow Surrealists Salvador Dalí and René Magritte, which include commonplace objects from waking life; the forms in Matta's works suggest many things but can be firmly identified with none. In the late 1930s and early 1940s Matta had produced works he called "inscapes," imaginary landscapes that he imagined as projections of psychological states. The Vertigo of Eros evokes an infinite space that suggests both the depths of the psyche and the vastness of the universe.
A galaxy of shapes suggesting liquid, fire, roots, and sexual parts floats in a dusky continuum of light. It is as if Matta's forms reached back beyond the level of the dream to the central source of life, proposing an iconography of consciousness before it has hatched into the recognizable coordinates of everyday experience. There is a sense of suspension in space, and indeed the work's title relates to Freud's location of human consciousness as caught between Eros, the life force, and Thanatos, the death wish. Constantly challenged by Thanatos, Eros produces vertigo. The human problem, then, is to achieve physical and spiritual equilibrium.
In French, the work's title is a pun, Le Vertige d'Eros doubling as Le Vert Tige des roses (the green stem of the roses).
The Vertigo of Eros. 1944
Publication excerpt from The Modern Museum of Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999, p. 189.